Dandelion, King’s Head Theatre – Review

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Regardless of one’s own opinions, there’s no arguing that Margaret Thatcher put her stamp on the 1980s almost always in ways that were divisive. At the tail end of the decade she introduced Clause 28, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities. Rescinded in 2003, the Clause for 15 years prohibited in the strongest possible terms the discussion of homosexuality as a reality in society and that any discourse on the matter was verboten. One of the ramifications of this legislation was the assumption children needed to be ‘protected’ from the ‘proselytism’ of the ‘homosexual lifestyle’. For members of the teaching faculty who were gay, they had to keep their sexual orientation secret and certainly not talk to pupils about non-heteronormative matters… Written by Jennifer Cerys and directed by Kimberley Jarvis, Dandelion follows teacher Ann Burke (Chaiyan Chambers-Paul) who in 1988, moves to Margate to be with her partner Mary (Orla O’Sullivan).

Ann’s new job at the local secondary school is going well, but Mrs Taylor (Katie Shalka) – the Health Studies teacher at the same school – spots the women together in town. Taylor, in turn, alerts the headteacher Mr Barnes (Matilda Wood) about her discovery and insists the Clause is quite clear on the school’s position regarding this ‘revelation’.

The rest of the characters show how receptive or ‘threatened’ they are by people being openly gay. Men in the pub like Dave (Sarah Logue) openly show their hostility towards the protests at Parliament, stopping Ann in her tracks from speaking out. Then there’s Mary, who from the off is seen to be ‘politically conscious’ and wishing to be an activist against the implementation of the Clause. While she’s in many ways ‘fearless’, her circumstances haven’t been tempered by personal adversity. Mary also happens to works from home, bypassing worries about ‘office politics’ regarding one’s sexual orientation in the workplace. In addition, Mary also ‘came out’ to her family years ago, who are happy with her candidness. In contrast, Ann’s mother and sister Edith (Kimberley Jarvis) have had a hard time accepting Ann’s sapphic proclivities, thinking it a phase – a diversion from her ‘true life plan’. Rather than get into another argument with them, Ann’s leaves a note to say she’s moving away. Of course, Ann hadn’t counted on Edith tracking her down and bringing news of their mother’s ill health…

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Cerys also spends time with the children at the school and their less-than-subtle opinions. Characters such as Colin (Christina Ngoyi) demonstrate homophobic language towards classmate Steven (Sanaa Byfield). Steven may or may not be gay, but in any case the accusations laid at him are disparaging in the extreme. Meanwhile, pupil Erica (Natasha Stiven) is nervous at the prospect of some ‘face time’ with Colin, so after talking to her friend Claire (Abby Browning) about it, they practice a kiss. There is undeniably some chemistry in the kiss, which perturbs Erica – frightened of how much she likes it and projects ‘the blame’ on to Claire. As in the case of Colin/Steven, there’s no concrete evidence that anybody is actually gay, but the fear and accusations are enough to damn someone. Much like The Crucible, the fear and hysteria of certain people is ‘contagious’, drowning out reason and whipping people into a frenzy.

While the early part of the play gives a taste of how Clause 28 affects the bigger picture, the emotional stakes come to the fore in the second half, when the focus is on Ann’s relationship wiith her sister and girlfriend. By doing what she thinks is ‘right’ for her, Ann inadvertently manages to alienate those closest to her. Not because she’s self-centred in any way, but because the others (despite their best intentions) can’t see things from her point of view and have their own notions of what’s best for all.

The way Dandelion concludes with Ann’s ‘temporary’ decision possibly having permanent consequences, there’s certainly scope for expanding the play. Not only to confirm Ann’s ultimate fate, but to find closure for the other characters too who have their own distinctive arcs and decisions. I certainly would be interested in seeing what immediately happens next to the characters in Dandelion and the ramifications of their actions 30 years on…

© Michael Davis 2018

Dandelion ran at King’s Head Theatre on 16th and 17th December.

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